What is Urban Exploration?

Urban exploration refers to the collection of data about public areas of the urban landscape that have been abandoned for some time or not for public access and use. This activity, although clandestine and made without the authorization of the possible owners, is prohibited in many areas by some decrees or internal regulations of certain administrations.

Figuratively speaking, the term Urbex comes from the literal translation of the expression urban exploration created by Ninjalicious in the 1990s. It refers to an activity of visiting places, abandoned or not, where visitors are generally denied access, or it's difficult to access at all.

The urban explorer appreciates the solitude of the spaces located outside the zones of activity. Instead of a guided tour of the nave of a cathedral, the urban explorer will be thrilled by the nocturnal exploration of its roofs or the abandoned factories nearby.

Proposing a broad definition, but primarily conditioned by the singular relationship of the individual to his environment, the British blogger, photographer and urban explorer Darmon Richter believes that "urban exploration is essentially a way of life – to reach new perspectives on the world around us.”

He believes the practice of visiting sites where the majority of people would not think or want to go, or where they do not think to be allowed to go is the essence of urbex. It's actually such a broad term that it can include anything and everything from the pipeline tour under the city where you grew up to the infiltration of an abandoned high-security military complex.

Historically, urban exploration has been an activity practiced by man for centuries. It can be seen from the many artistic currents in the history of the arts such as Egyptomania or neo-classicist paintings. Romanticism periods depicted people walking through the ruins dotting Europe including paintings of those who took macabre excursions in the catacombs and other mass graves.


The practice emerged in the 1980s. There are some areas of the world like France where explorers have the metro, many construction sites, factories, and other abandoned building. In places like the United States, There are communities of practitioners that communicate regarding the best places to explore.

Interests of Urban Explorers

Urban exploration is a set of practices whose motivations can be very different. Some will be focused on the historical aspect, the old and the abandoned. For others, it will be the mastery of the modern city and its backstage. It's all about knowing the deep, dark secrets of the world behind the pretty face of the city. Photography and video are also an important motivation. Groups often form around one of these practices

Roofing in Hong Kong

In roofing, the places visited are almost always roofs, whether residences, large buildings (administrations, public sites), churches, or cathedrals.

By extension, the rooftopper also climbs cranes or tall chimneys.

This activity is generally practiced at night because of the illegal access. Some, however, obtain legal access, especially in the context of interview campaigns or photographic reports.

The rooftopper usually rises to the highest places to enjoy the view and take pictures. Instead of simply taking part in tourist visits, he is motivated by a desire for calm and relaxation. The visit of these places, without anyone to disturb their tranquility, becomes a privileged moment of observation of the panorama and perception of the elements (such as wind or rain).


Anyone who enters the inspection galleries of the former underground quarries of Paris (often confused with the catacombs) and goes through them is described as cataphile. The motivations of the cataphiles are very diverse: the historical interest, the need for solitude, the taste for the forbidden, or the attraction of the mineral world.

Cataphiles are essentially different from speleologists in that the passion of the cataphiles is rather aimed at the visit of the underground places built by the hand of the man, and presented as such a historical attraction. Some techniques of caving can sometimes be used to explore difficult to access areas (wells without steps, vertical passages that have collapsed, galleries drowned filled with water).

Cataphilia is also different from subterranology, which is the study of artificial cavities and underground infrastructures. Cataphilia does not necessarily rest on the study of the places, but more on the aspect of visiting, squatting, and having parties.

Cataphilia finally became the global name for cataphily in the strict sense and exploration of the careers of the Paris region in the broad sense, particularly because of the gradual closure of certain careers in Paris and the evolution of cataphile activity in quarries, mines, cellars, and crypts. This led to a link between cataphilia and urban exploration, two practices that overlap to a greater or lesser extent.

Rural Exploration

This activity, derived from urban exploration, consists of introducing and visiting places often abandoned while enjoying the tranquility of the rural environment. Unlike urban exploration, rural exploration is more marginal. The knowledge of heritage, industrial or craft, is often one of the motivations of the activity.

Places visited: farms, agricultural cooperatives, silos, houses, factories, building sites, buildings, cemeteries, and old railway lines.

Exploration is often accompanied by taking photographs of the place visited.

Industrial Wastelands and Abandoned Places

The visit of abandoned industrial sites is theoretically prohibited because it's considered private property, and also because of the dangers like dangerous materials stored, risks of falls, collapse of the structure, electrocution, and/or asbestos. It represents a large part of the urbex activity because it is easily to find and available depending on the region. It sometimes happens that the site was bought by a local authority or put under guardianship of a public body of the public land type, to be cleared and destroyed. In this case, the urbex activity serves as a visual testimony of an industrial heritage endangered.

Abandoned Factory

However, it is quite rare to find an industrial site still preserved due to vandalism and looting of furniture and metals, which is widespread, and some urban explorers are trying to raise awareness.

Often, such sites are visited by people who are interested in industrial history and respect the site. Industrial sites classified as cultural heritage sites are freely accessible and secure. We then come close to it being called industrial archeology instead of urban or industrial exploration, which aims to identify and highlight the industrial heritage of the country.

Water and Sewer Systems

One of the major components of city infrastructure is its management of water flows. Whether drinkable, industrial, rain, or waste, these require the installation of mostly underground pipelines for their transport – aqueducts, sewers, and pipes) or storage (basins and spillways). All these infrastructures thus represent an additional playground for some urban explorers.

This practice, called "draining" among anglophones, can nevertheless be dangerous in case of rain and has already led to fatal accidents. Cave-Clan, a website dedicated to draining, has a saying: “When it rains, no drains.”

This activity is widely practiced in Australia, where the rainwater collection network is generally separated from that of wastewater. On the other hand, it remains rather uncommon in France, a probable reason being the unitary character of French sewers: rainwater and wastewater often circulate in the same network. It can also, as is the case in Paris, be regulated and subject to significant water releases, including in dry weather. Finally, the presence of gas – methane or hydrogen sulphide – from the fermentation of organic matter can represent a real threat. These factors therefore tend to make visits particularly dangerous in the Hexagon.

Risks Related to this Activity

Legal Risks

In many parts of the world, the explorer who enters private places exposes himself to a legal risk – penetration with or without break-ins in the property of others. But this could go up to accusations of espionage or attack on the State Security depending on where the urban explorer has infiltrated.

At the penal level, abandoned buildings are almost always private property. On the other hand, if nothing proves to you that the place is forbidden – like a sign – justice can not really say anything unless you commit degradations or if this place contains confidential data.


Physical risks

The physical risks associated with this activity are of several kinds: The explorer falling, or falling of stones, or collapses. Risks related to water like the sudden flooding of a pipe. Risks related to gases or the absence of oxygen. Risks of explosion due to firedamp or dust). Exposure to degraded asbestos in some sites should also be taken into account.

Meetings and Media

The communities around urbex include preparing for a exploration via the  forums or social network. They're often helped with Google Street View.

With the advent of the Internet, the modes of transmission of information and initiation have been turned upside down. The creation of numerous websites and forums full of locations and photos have popularized the activity.

The Internet has made it possible to bring together amateurs of wastelands separated by great distances and interactions between the different European, U. S. and world scenes.

Practice by country

In Belgium

Belgium is home to many activists, and the local exploration community has been booming in recent years. Several world-famous urban explorers come from Belgium.

Following the decline of heavy industry, some regions such as Liege and the Black Country are conducive to industrial discoveries. These now benefit explorers from around the world.

The main Belgian explorers approach the subject in several ways. Some focus solely on photography while others focus more on heritage. A third set of explorers see exploration as a sport.

The boom of the 2000s brings an undesirable effect for a whole part of this scene. Unsuspecting people begin exploration and spread the site of preserved places on the internet. This engenders a mutation of the original artistic phenomenon towards excessive consumption.

In France

In France, urban exploration was formerly mainly derived from Parisian cataphilia and its ramifications. It quickly spread throughout the country.

Nowadays, many websites, Flickr profiles, and Facebook pages have been created since 2010, resulting in the discovery and sharing of many sites that were previously unknown. It began a real debate on its practice as well as code of ethics as for the discretion and the preservation of the places. Debates are frequent and sometimes heated.

Currently, France is the only country with a shop dedicated to the practice. It's the first of its kind to offer specific hardware dedicated to urban exploration and cataphile.

In Canada

The Canadian "scene" is very active. In Montreal alone, the number of frequent explorers is estimated at about 30. Their favorite locations include the former Dow brewery, the Canada Maltage plant in the Saint-Henri district, and the No. 5 silo.

Major events related to urban exploration originated in Canada, for example OPEX, which is an event that brings together

OPEX brought together at least 40 urban explorers from around the world from the city of Vancouver to Australia and Scotland.

EUROPEX is an event focused on exploration in Western Europe.

Other events are organized but, this time, being based more on social networks like the urbex meet that occurs most of the time in Montreal.

In the United States

A large community of urban explorers is established across the vast American territory. In the 2000s, the economic crisis aggravated the situation in the city of Detroit, which became the new destination of the urban explorers. A large part of the city was abandoned, due to the closure of multiple companies and the resulting exodus. It has expanded to a community of explorers sharing some of their experiences on the Internet without giving up locations to keep them pristine and secure.

In Australia

In Australia, urban exploration was born with the Cave Clan in January 1986 created by three teenagers from Melbourne. They specialize in the exploration of "drains", which are storm sewers. Since then, the group has branches in all states and major Australian cities.

There have been television shows like Abandoned, Off Limits and Unforgettables that have featured explored abandoned parts of the world like factories, shopping malls, and entire shopping strip malls.




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